Writing Can Serve You Even if You’re Not Feeling Creative

Writing Can Serve You Even if You’re Not Feeling Creative

How are you? I mean that sincerely. How are you?  

It’s okay if you don’t know the answer. Maybe you’re cycling through a gamut of emotions that starts with shock or fear then moves through grief, overwhelm, and boredom only to return to shock and fear.

I’ve spoken with many writers who are struggling to make it to the page. When they do, nothing comes out. That’s understandable. The part of our brains that handle the fight-or-flight response is being inundated with frightening messages. We call that emotion center the amygdala. When the amygdala is overtaxed, it’s physically harder to think. On top of that, many of us don’t have the heart space needed for our most vulnerable projects.

That’s okay.

Be gentle with yourself.

Writing can still serve you even if you’re not feeling creative.

 

Keep a daily journal. We are living through a historic event. Record your thoughts, observations, and feelings. Make note of the weather. Collect random thoughts from social media, the news, and things others say to you. The more surprising the better.

If nothing else, your journal will remind you of what happened. Some of those facts could one day make it into an essay, memoir, short story or novel. More importantly, writing down your fears and troubling thoughts helps you let them go. They can live on the page rather than in your body or brain. This can reduce your cortisol level, boost your mood, and give you a sense of creative accomplishment.

Five minutes is all you need. If your mind wanders, no problem. All you’re doing is journaling. There’s no end goal. If you run out of things to write about, you can even write about that.

Practice gratitude. Every day during this crisis brings us a new set of challenges, but good things are also happening. Spring flowers are blooming. The sun is shining. You have access to the internet. Being grateful for what’s going well can improve your mood, boost your immune system, and make life more pleasant.

Here are a few ways you can practice gratitude:

  • At the end of each writing session, record one thing you’re grateful for.
  • Start a gratitude journal. Write down one gratitude at the beginning of the day, one at lunchtime, and one before bed. The next morning, read your journal then start again. If you’re tech-savvy, you can download the Five-Minute Journal and use it to store your answers.
  • Develop a daily thanksgiving ritual: Before dinner, have each person at the table state one thing they’re grateful for.
  • Write a letter or email of gratitude to someone who’s influenced your life.

Creativity requires a mind that is active and yet relaxed. This is something few of us feel at the moment. One thing is still true. Your stories have not gone anywhere. They’re just giving you room to cope with your COVID-19 challenges.

If you’re ready to start a gratitude practice, post one gratitude in the comments section of this blog post. You never know who you might encourage. You can also follow me on Facebook or Twitter and join my daily gratitude challenge.

Be well. Stay healthy. When you’re ready, write on.

The Reason Writers Fail to Give Themselves Time to Write

The Reason Writers Fail to Give Themselves Time to Write

On Thursday, February 27, 2020, I headed to The Porches. Twice a year, I spend four days at this writing retreat center in Nelson County, Virginia, so I can immerse myself in my writing projects. Having whole days to pore over my pages, or just stare at the wall, feels like a luxury. Yet the alone time also feels essential. 
 
Solitude is something Julia Cameron talks about in her book The Artist’s Way.  She says, “an artist requires the upkeep of creative solitude” and views time alone as a gift that replenishes the soul. Deny your need for solitude and see how you treat those around you. 
 
In classes, I call these moments of solitude “Don Draper Moments” after the character from the Mad Men television series who always finds inspiration while lounging on the couch with his bourbon. 
 
Writers need time to stare into space—with or without a bourbon.
 
Yet, some writers believe these “Don Draper Moments” are reserved for full-time writers. 
 
Two days before the retreat, I watched a video where Elizabeth Gilbert shared the difference between a hobby, job, career, and vocation.Watching that video blew my mind. Here are her definitions: 

  • A hobby is something you do for pleasure.
  • A job is something that pays the bills. 
  • A career is a job you are passionate about and willing to make sacrifices for.
  • A vocation is a divine calling. 

My hobbies include painting, yoga, and cooking. While I sometimes do these things well, mastery is not my goal. All I care about is showing up and having fun.  
 
Everyone needs a job. Mine happens to be editor, instructor, and coach—something I see as a career. I’ve also been a baker, assistant to the unit business manager of a university library system, a special education teacher, and a counselor. In each job, I had to find pockets of time where I could be alone and write.

Finding that time often required me to give something up, but this never felt like a sacrifice. Why? Because writing is my vocation. I’ll do it regardless of the outcome. 

In two weeks, I’ll share my interviews with working writers who are making the most of their writing time. For now, I want you to ponder a few things. 

  • What do you want your writing to be—a hobby, job, career, or vocation? There’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist. Writing for the joy of writing is its own reward. If you want to make writing a job or a career, find out what’s required then go for it. If you see writing as your vocation, what does this mean to you?  
  • If you feel called to write, examine your current occupation. If your job pays the bills, gives you time, and doesn’t make you feel sad, exploited or demeaned, rejoice. You’re in the right place. Have a meaningful career that also gives you time to write? Throw yourself a party. If the list above doesn’t describe your work life, consider what you can change. Is it possible to choose a job that’s less fulfilling but requires fewer hours? Are you willing to live in a smaller place or forgo cable TV? If you’re truly called to write, these choices will not seem like sacrifices.  
  • Carve out twenty minutes two to three times per week to stare at the wall or lounge on the couch à la Don Draper. If twenty minutes feels like too much, find five. No excuses. Forgoing one alarm snooze will give you that time. 
  • Cut one time-sucking habit in half and invest that time into your writing life. Most of us can do this by limiting social media or other screen time. 
  • Stop seeing writing as a return on an investment. Do it because it brings you joy and/or you’re called to do it. If necessary, develop or return to your why.
  • Notice—and record—when your writing fills you up or when someone compliments your work. Revisiting these moments will remind you of what’s important—the human connections we create with our work. 
The Two Ways to You Can View Time

The Two Ways to You Can View Time

During my webinar “Write More, Fret Less,” a participant asked the following question: How do we write mindfully when we don’t have much time left? She was referring not to publication deadlines but to the end of her life.

Gulp.

This is probably the most important question anyone has ever asked me. I was both honored and humbled by her willingness to share something so profound. I would also be lying if I didn’t admit this question stuck in my throat for a few minutes as I tried to find a sufficient answer.

I am no guru.

As an ambitious, curious woman, time and I have been lifelong frenemies. If I could, I would do EVERYTHING. But, attempts to do everything have been futile. I end up wearing myself out, and in that worn-out state, I can get pretty crunchy. (Just ask my husband.)

So, what do you do when you’re facing the ultimate deadline?

During the webinar, I inhaled deeply, asked divine wisdom to answer for me, and offered what I’ve learned as a recovering time squanderer.

Let’s face it, whether you know the end is near, or you believe you’re immortal, our time on this planet is finite. Creating more time is not an option. What we can do is choose how we experience the time we have.

There are two choices.

Option one: view time through the lens of scarcity and focus on how there’s never enough. If you view time through this lens, time will always feel scarce. An undercurrent of fear will rule your every decision. Everything will feel rushed.

So, what’s the other option? We can view time through the lens of abundance. We can choose to believe that while we might not have all the time we wanted, we have enough time to do what’s important.

Viewing time through the lens of abundance will not magically increase your lifespan. But you will feel a sense of ease around the time you have. In that relaxed, centered space, you will use your time wisely. You will focus on what’s really important rather than trying to check everything off your to-do list.

You don’t have to be at the end of your life to practice abundant time management. All you need is a willingness to see time differently. Julia Cameron (and many others) suggest the following exercise. Write down what you would be doing if you only had six months left to live. Once you’ve finished the exercise, add as many of these things as you can to the life you’re already living.

For several years I’ve been working to practice abundant time management. Sometimes I totally ace this. At other times, old thoughts creep in. I feel edgy and hear myself say, “I don’t have time for this,” or “there’s too much to do and not enough time,” or “everything is wasting my time.”

Sound familiar?

Here’s my reframe. When I catch myself uttering these phrases, I pause, breathe deeply, and say, “oh, there’s that scarcity again.” Then I change my script. I say to myself, “I have enough time to do what’s important.”

Say that with me: I have enough time to do what’s important.

After I flip the script, I evaluate why these scarcity-based phrases are coming to mind. Maybe, I don’t have time for something I really want to do because I’m overscheduled. Maybe I’m giving too much to others and not enough to myself. Maybe, I’m struggling with what I feel I SHOULD do versus what will feed my soul.

Once I understand the root cause of my scarcity, I make a choice. I own that I’ve repeated an old pattern and explore my options. I get clear on what I want. When I need to, I say no and focus on what’s important. Each time I say no, I reframe my internal message. Instead of saying “I just don’t have time for this,” I say, “this isn’t a good fit for me. I’m choosing to spend my time in another way.”

Choice equals power, and power equals abundance.

So, what are your signals that you’re living in scarcity?

What are your antidotes to fear?

How are you making the most of your time on planet earth?

Most importantly, how does your view of time impact the way you nurture the artist within you?

Five Ways to Nurture Your Inner Artist

Five Ways to Nurture Your Inner Artist

My creativity heals myself and others. 

I am allowed to nurture my artist.

For the past thirty days, I’ve written these words at the end of my morning writing session. The exercise is part of Julia Cameron’s program The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. I joined an Artist’s Way group at the start of the year. Each Friday, nine of us meet to go over the week’s tasks. We share our challenges and hold each other accountable while also lifting each other up.

Sometimes Julia asks me to do things I don’t want to do like schedule a week of reading deprivation (gasp!). The program causes me to stretch my creative wings and gives me the opportunity to walk the talk I offer to my clients and students.

So, let me ask you this: how often do you say to yourself, “I am allowed to nurture my artist?”

What would it feel like to say this sentence right now?

Out loud.

Maybe in front of a mirror.

Last month, I asked you to contemplate the why of your writing life. Now that you know why you’re writing I invite you to nurture the part of yourself that does this work. Commit to thirty days of caring for your artist. You could do this by starting Julia Cameron’s program either by yourself or with friends. (I highly recommend completing the full program with friends.) Or, you can do an abbreviated Artist’s Way by practicing these five steps.

  1. Commit to a page a day: Julia recommends you write three morning pages as soon as you wake up. It doesn’t matter if the pages are filled with rants about your boss or lines of poetry. Your only job is to get words on a page. I’ve been doing “pages” off and on for seven years, though my pages rarely happen as soon as I get out of bed. Also, there are rarely three. So, I won’t hold you to that standard. For this exercise, commit to one page per day at the time of your choosing. It doesn’t even have to be a big page. Just make it a daily practice.

 

  1. Go on Artist’s Dates: Artist’s dates are simply solo excursions you go on to delight your inner artist. They do not need to cost money. You don’t even have to leave your house. Artist dates can include walks in nature, trips to the toy store, dates at art galleries or thrift stores. Some people sing their favorite music or dance in the kitchen. You could go to the movies by yourself or take pictures with your cell phone. Just do something that’s delightful and out of the ordinary for you. Bonus points if it’s something you haven’t done in a long time. Some of you will find this to be delightful. Others will grumble that you don’t have time for such frivolity. Do it anyway. Even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. Notice how this affects your creativity.

 

  1. Develop an affirmation practice: Your artist is the sensitive, gentle part of you that keenly observes the world. It feels deeply and when you hurt, it’s often the part of you that hurts the most. Use affirmations to remind yourself that this work is important, and perhaps even holy, because in doing this work you get closer to the most authentic version of yourself. Nurturing your authenticity gives others permission to do the same. This week, write down a favorite prayer, saying, or phrase that can serve as a beacon for your creative self. Next week, I’ll send you a few of my favorites from Julia’s book.

 

  1. Reach out for some creative support: Let someone know you’re nurturing your artist. If that person is a fellow artist, consider offering each other mutual aid. This doesn’t need to be a grand gesture. Get together for coffee and talk about your creativity. Set a writing date (even if it’s over the phone). Offer to send each other one sentence—or even one word—emails or texts of encouragement. The point is to remind yourself that you don’t need to do this alone.

 

  1. Meditate: I am a huge advocate for meditation. Julia is too. She suggests daily meditations so you can get in touch with the wise voice that lives inside you. To do this, set a timer for five minutes and just breathe in and out. If five minutes feels like too much, start with one. If you’re wondering why this is important to your writing life or how you can develop a mindful writing practice, join me on February 12thas I team up with Jane Friedman for Write More, Fret Less: Mindfulness for Writers. For $20 you can attend the live event and ask questions during the Q&A. But, don’t let scheduling be a barrier. All who register will get a recording of the webinar plus a guided meditation and my top ten tips for developing a mindful writing practice.

 

So, will you join me in this experiment and find out how a thirty-day focus on your artist affects your creativity and the quality of your life? At the end of the month, share your results. I’d love to hear from you.

Scholarships Now Available

Scholarships Now Available

Dana (pronounced “DAH-nuh”), noun. Sanskrit, Pali, roughly “gift, alms, donation”; voluntary giving of materials, energy, or wisdom (dharma) to others; generosity; regarded as one of the most important Buddhist virtues.

I grew up during the 1980s recession that brought us Ronald Regan and Black Monday. Between 1980 – 1987, my hometown of Elmira, New York hemorrhaged so many jobs our city’s economic crisis made the New York Times. My grandfather lost his job and pension in 1983. My father lost his job in 1985. After my parents’ divorce, he was functionally homeless for the next three years as he searched for steady work. During that same period, my mother, twin brothers, and I frequently lived on a lentil diet or ate dinners at my grandparents’ house.  

As I began to think about careers, everyone gave me the same advice. Be practical. Get a safe and steady job. Work for the government. Amass what you can now because one day everything will fall apart. 

Creativity felt like an impractical luxury I could not afford.  

And yet, creativity called to my soul. 

It wasn’t until I experienced a life-threatening bout of Lyme disease that I truly realized creativity was what sustained me and made me whole. As I embraced my creative life, mentors appeared. I received many generous gifts that led me to this job. 

Maybe you too feel like creativity is a gift—one you can’t afford.

And yet, maybe creativity also calls to your soul. 

While I don’t talk about it much, Dana has always been a part of my life. It’s a core tenant of my values. In 2020, I am going to put those values into practice within my coaching business. This year, I will award four partial scholarships to be used towards a one-hour coaching session or one of the four- or eight-week classes I’ll be teaching through Revising U. 

Scholarships will be awarded based on the following criteria: 

  1. Financial need 
  2. Dedication to the craft of writing and potential for success 
  3. A clear plan for how you will use this service to benefit your writing and others
  4. A commitment to be a good literary citizen and pay this gift forward 

 
Preference will be given to people with significant financial need and those whose stories have been marginalized. 
 
If you believe you would benefit from one of these scholarships, please send an email to lisa.cooper.ellison@gmail.com. In your email, please answer the following questions: 
 

  1. What financial barriers do you face when accessing writing classes? 
  2. What classes have you taken and/or what experiences have you participated in that demonstrate your commitment to your writing life? What successes have you had? 
  3. How will you use this scholarship to benefit your writing and others? 
  4. How will you serve as a good literary citizen and pay this gift forward? 

Questions? Send me an email. I love hearing from you. 

Write On, Friends!

Lisa Cooper Elison

Five Questions that Can Help You (Re)Define the Why of Your Writing Life

Five Questions that Can Help You (Re)Define the Why of Your Writing Life

Every essay and story must contain a why. The why is the story’s point and the reason we should care about the work. It’s often phrased as why this, or why now, or why you. As the writer, it’s your job to clearly articulate the why of your writing in the most engaging way. But have you ever thought about the why of your writing life?

Every New Year’s Day, I write about my year and examine the whys of my creative and personal life. It’s a practice I started at age eleven. For thirty-four years, I’ve never missed an entry. On this New Year’s Day, I looked at my past ten submissions and examined what I’d learned and how my writing life has evolved.

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” This is largely because as writers we care about the outcome. In my teens and early twenties, I cared deeply about spinning a good yarn. Yet most of my pieces were thinly veiled short stories I used to understand my experiences. In my thirties, I wrote to hear myself think.

During the following decade, everything changed. Between 2010 – 2020, I earned a master’s degree in counseling, contracted Lyme disease, experienced the kind of existential crisis that only a prolonged, life-threatening illness can expose, and determined to redefine my career and myself.

As a part of that redefinition, I started a business, wrote two books, taught writing classes, and helped numerous writers with the stories they cherish most. For a while, my why was about helping others heal through the power of their stories. When I got sick, I used the power of story to heal myself. In wellness, I’ve combined these goals into a creative calling I’ve labeled Revising U.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing memoir, personal essays, fiction, or poetry. All writing is an attempt to understand the self, be it our shadow or our ability to transcend difficult circumstances. In creative nonfiction, we excavate real life in search of truth. In fiction, we push past the bounds of reality as a way to exemplify truth. In poetry, we use space, brevity, and precision to laser in on something essential. The question is not whether the writing affects you, but what effect you want the writing to have on you and the reader.   

My why is simple. I write to transform myself. I help other writers write, revise, and transform their stories into powerful works of art because art has the capacity to heal us. In that centered, whole place, we can create a better world.

Consider your why for a minute.

Why do you write
            even when it’s difficult?
            even when you’ve got nothing to say?
            even when you dare not express that forbidden idea or thought?

If you’re hearing crickets, use the following five questions to find your why.

  1. What do you write about? Are there specific themes that regularly emerge in your work?
  2. When do you write? Do your words flow freely from the depths of depression or during moments of joy? Is writing a way to understand your darkness or record the moments you don’t want to forget?
  3. Who do you share your writing with? Family? Friends? Literary Magazines? People on the Internet? If your answer is no one, meditate on this: If you could share your work with one person or group who would that be? Under what conditions would sharing your writing make you smile?
  4. How do you write? Do you love the feel of pen and paper or the clickety-clack of fingers on keys? Are you someone who has to speak your words?
  5. Where do you find inspiration? Do you go inwards or travel to a destination?

Once you’ve explored these questions, consider what they say about the role of creativity in your life. How does it help you make meaning from your experiences? In what ways does creativity make you a better person? Develop a clear and compelling why for 2020. Then ask yourself how you can add more of this why to your writing life. If your why doesn’t feel satisfactory, think about what you can do to build a better one.

Looking for assistance in this area? Send me an email.  

Dialogue Lab Two: The Power of Subtext

Dialogue Lab Two: The Power of Subtext

My grandfather was a huge fan of saying “actions speak louder than words.” He believed keen observation would prevent me from being taken advantage of. While this lesson has served me well in my personal life, it’s also wise dialogue writing advice.

Great dialogue contains two messages. The first is shared through the direct dialogue exchanged between the two characters. The second is the unspoken or hidden message revealed through characters’ body language and facial expressions. We call that unspoken message subtext. 

Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, calls subtext a “form of dialogue that contributes to the dance of power.” When subtext contradicts the message in your direct dialogue it amplifies the dramatic tension between characters and heightens the scene’s stakes. To understand what this looks like, let’s check out a few examples.

There are several ways to include subtext in your writing. Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is about a couple contemplating an abortion. In this section, lines of direct dialogue coupled with the girl’s silence reveal each characters’ true feelings about the choice in front of them.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.


“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”


The girl did not say anything.


“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”


“Then what will we do afterward?”


“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

Sometimes writers reveal subtext through gestures and observations as Pam Houston does in this scene from “Highwater,” an autobiographical short story from her collection Cowboys are My Weakness.

“So.” His voice made me jump. “What do you think our potential is in the long-long run?” It sounded like stocks.

“In the long-long run,” I said, “I think our potential is good.” His free hand drummed on the dashboard.

“Do you think I can satisfy you, sexually and otherwise, for a long time?”

I said, “I think you can satisfy me for a long time.” The veins around his temples looked like they would burst.

Without ever saying so, we know this man was hoping for another answer.

Sometimes subtext occurs between the story’s characters and the reader. Check out this phenomenal scene between the killer Chigurh and the owner of a convenience store from No Country for Old Men. In this scene, Chigurh is irritated by the proprietor’s “nosy” questions about what he’s been up to.  

CHIGURH
…What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?

PROPRIETOR
Sir?

CHIGURH
The most. You ever lost. On a coin toss.

 PROPRIETOR
I don’t know. I couldn’t say.

Chigurh is digging in his pocket. A quarter: he tosses it. He slaps it onto his forearm but keeps it covered. Call it.

PROPRIETOR
Call it?

 CHIGURH
Yes.

PROPRIETOR
For what?

 CHIGURH
Just call it.

 PROPRIETOR
Well — we need to know what it is we’re callin’ for here.

CHIGURH
You need to call it. I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t even be right.

PROPRIETOR
I didn’t put nothin’ up.

CHIGURH
Yes you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin?

When watching this scene, it’s clear the proprietor is afraid of his mysterious customer, but he has no idea who Chigurh really is or the stakes he’s playing for. But the reader does.

So, what can you do to increase the subtext in your dialogue?

  • When reading, identify passages where writers have created effective subtext. Pay attention to the hidden messages and how they’re communicated to you and the other characters.
  • In your own stories, analyze passages of dialogue that feel flat. Determine the purpose of the exchange. Identify what you want to say and what you hope to convey. Sometimes it helps to do this with a writing partner or workshop group. Make sure that at least part of what you wish to convey is unspoken.
  • Look for contradictory gestures, body language, vocal tics, and observations you can use to reveal the true meaning of the conversation.

Like all skills, subtext is one that requires practice. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll write engaging scenes readers will love. 

 

Dialogue Lab One: Dialect versus Diction

Dialogue Lab One: Dialect versus Diction

In early October, my father experienced a medical emergency that sent me to Upstate New York. During his recovery, I spent three weeks in my childhood hometown. During hospital visits and errands, I listened to the conversations around me—not just what was said, but the words each person used to convey their messages.

Dialogue is the lifeblood of any scene. When executed effectively, it catapults the reader into the heart of a story. The very best dialogue feels authentic and flows seamlessly from line to line. But don’t be fooled. Effective dialogue requires keen observation, advanced planning, and lots and lots of practice.

 Let’s start with two scenes.

Scene One

The pizza was cold when it arrived. Frank bit his slice then dropped it onto the table. “Man, those motherfuckers must’ve given us a bad batch.”

“A bad batch?” Gene raised an eyebrow in Frank’s direction.

“Yeah, a bad batch. You gotta watch out for dranos in a place like this—you know, people with nothing left to lose.”

Gene nodded as he pulled out a pack of Camels. Before he could retrieve a cigarette for himself, Frank expectantly held out his hand. Gene cleared his throat then handed him the pack. “Yeah, I know what you mean about dranos. Those fuckers will drain you dry.”

 Scene Two

A wall of heat blasted us as we entered the house. The thermostat hovered somewhere around eighty, even though it was only thirty-two degrees outside. After a few quick hugs, Grandma ushered us to the back bedroom. “I saved the medium-grit sheets for you’ins,” she said. “They’re the warmest ones.”

Eying the window I planned to open when we laid down for bed, I smiled and said, “They’ll do just fine.”

Even without physical descriptions, there’s no confusing Frank and Gene for Grandma. Two aspects of the writing differentiate these characters: dialect and diction.

You can identify the very best characters with only a few lines of dialogue. Often, their diction reads like a fingerprint.

According to Merriam Webster, diction is a “choice of words especially with regard to correctness, clearness, or effectiveness.”

When writing dialogue, correctness means choosing the right words for your characters.

 To develop a character’s diction, consider the following: 

  • Slang: Slang is time- and region-dependent. For example, something might be groovy, rad, or dank depending on when you grew up. Someone might make you wicked nervous or hella nervous depending on whether you’re from Boston or California.
  •  Phraseology: One character might use davenport to describe a piece of living room furniture. Another might say sofa. A third might say couch. Each choice reveals another aspect of who your character is and how they view the world.
  • Rhythm: A nervous character might speak quickly or run several sentences together while a depressed character might speak slowly and or use frequent pauses.
  • Idioms or Personal Phrases: An idiom is a figure of speech that means something different than a literal translation of the words would lead one to believe. Many popular clichés are also idioms. Think “piece of cake,” “wear my heart on my sleeve,” and “live off the fat of the land.” While you don’t want to fill your work with clichés, see if there’s a way to create some fresh idioms for your dialogue. A great way to find fresh idioms is to pay attention to the phrases used by people around you. For example, my brother is a fan of saying, “You’re risking a scab” anytime someone engages in risky behavior or makes a smart-aleck remark.

Novelist John Gregory Dunne recorded interesting phrases he heard on notecards he kept in his wallet.

Another way to increase the authenticity of your work is through the careful use of dialect. Again, quoting Merriam Webster, dialect is “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation from other regional varieties, and constituting together with them a single language.”

In writing, dialect could look like “Y’all, I ain’t got a dog in that fight,” or “Yo, that’s some mad fresh pizza.”

While the occasional use of dialect writing can add flavor to a text, heavy use of dialect can backfire. This is more likely to happen when your character is from a group you don’t belong to or the dialect includes a barrage of phonetically spelled words and unfamiliar slang. At the very least, poorly executed dialect overwhelms readers with its unfamiliarity. At the very worst, it can reinforce negative stereotypes and discriminatory views.

Dialect writing is tricky. There are often nuances in regional speech patterns that even native speakers get wrong. When these faux pas occur, writers lose credibility with their readers.

The key to using diction and dialect effectively is to do your research.

  • Listen to recordings and historically accurate film clips from the time or region you’re writing about.
  • Look for what makes a speech pattern unique and capture that in your work.
  • Use dialect sparingly and avoid overuse of contractions and phonetic spellings. Instead of writing a word like “gotta” on the page, consider writing “have got to.” When reading aloud you can always use the shortened form to enhance the sound of your work.

In her blog post “A Writer’s Guide to Speech Patterns,” writer Mara Mahan has an excellent list of questions every writer should consider when designing a character’s dialect and diction. Her questions cover topics like a character’s rate of speech, use of positive or negative statements, and the importance of considering your context. For example, would your character speak to her best friend in the same way she speaks to her parents?

Fleshing out your dialogue is worth the effort. Effective dialect and diction can make the difference between a publication and work that gets buried in a slush pile. 

Thankfully, my father is recovering from his serious illness. This means I can focus on the gifts this experience has given to me, such as the chance to develop some mindful attention to dialogue. You don’t need a medical emergency to sharpen these skills. The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to train your ear. As you sit with family members, listen to the words they use. Carry a few notecards in your pocket. When you encounter an interesting phrase, jot it down.

The Death of Sonny

The Death of Sonny

This personal essay was a finalist in the

 Hippocampus Literary Magazine’s Remember In November Contest

   

  “Without smoke, you can’t see the light.”

  My husband Alex said this to me while explaining why professional tours use fog machines in their light shows. The particles reflect the light so we can see the beam’s path. Without the particles, the beauty is lost.

 I already knew about smoke and beauty. As kids, my brothers and I had been firebugs who created blazes in the abandoned brickyard near our house. Some fires were taller than we were. Heat waves shimmered in the smoky boundary between fresh air and flame, creating an ethereal blur we called the place between worlds. Sometimes we jumped through those flames hoping to boundary hop into this magical kingdom of particles and light.

Sitting in the band’s touring van as we waited for our new driver, Mario, I was once again surrounded by smoke. It was March 5, 1997, halfway through the European leg of Biohazard’s Mata Leão tour. Alex’s band was Biohazard’s opener. I’d joined the tour a week ago, half-hoping to find myself. Today was the band’s day off. We’d spent the early afternoon wandering through Innsbruck, a small city high in the Austrian Alps. At 3:30 p.m., we boarded the van and prepared to leave for Prague. Mario was supposed to arrive at four. It was now five-thirty.

 He was late, even by rock-n-roll standards.

 

Four Backstory Traps and How to Escape Them

Four Backstory Traps and How to Escape Them

I remember the exact moment when I decided to become a writer. It was the winter of 1987. I was in sixth-period study hall, gripping Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The book catapulted me into the world of Louis Creed and Jud Crandall, making the rowdy seventh graders around me disappear. Every day that week, I stayed up well past midnight, unable to put Pet Sematary down.

I spent the next few years in various states of terror as I devoured King’s most famous works including It, The Stand, and The Tommyknockers. Stephen King is a masterful storyteller. His skills with dialogue, plot, character development, and scene-setting are incredible. But even during those early years of fandom, I regularly ran across what felt like a major flaw in his books: the backstory problem. 

Early chapters in King’s novels were absolutely riveting. But just as the story began to truck along, he’d interrupt the forward-moving story with a fifty-plus-page U-turn into the past. I remember little of those forays into backstory other than my fervent desire to skip them.

This summer, I experienced a similar backstory trap as I revised my memoir. Despite everything I tell students and clients, I found myself loading early chapters with backstory about my childhood experiences. The problem had my internal editor on high alert. Every move felt wrong, and yet I continued to scramble around in the past, believing it was all essential. 

As I continued to wrestle with this problem, I researched common backstory traps to see which one I’d fallen into. 

Problem One: The Kitchen Sink

Authors want readers to know who their characters really are. And, because the past often predicts the future, sometimes they share everything leading up to the story present. While some backstory might be essential, most of it is unnecessary.  Even when a scene from the past seems like a perfect fit, it’s important to justify its presence. 

In the Writer’s Digest article “How to Weave Backstory Seamlessly into Your Novel,” agent Jeff Kleinman is quoted as saying “Backstory is the stuff the author figures the reader should know—not stuff the character desperately wants to tell the reader. If it’s critical to the character, it’s critical to the reader, and then it’s not backstory.” Look at what the character wants to say and not what you as the writer want to convey.

Solution: Take time to understand who your characters are and what your story is about. Once you’ve solidified the narrative arc, think about what backstory items directly affect your story. Ask your characters what they desperately need to say for readers to understand them.

Problem Two: The Dump

In early drafts, it’s not uncommon for writers to dump essential backstory into the first few chapters of the book. Writers who use this technique sometimes hope wounds revealed on page seventeen will have a huge payoff on page 210. If you’ve sunk a good hook into the reader, they might employ the skip technique to work their way around your backstory dump. But, if your hook is insufficient or the story doesn’t actually start until page eighty, readers are likely to put your book down. Even when readers stick with your story, they might not remember that page seventeen detail if there’s a lengthy gap between initial mention and payoff.

Solution: Place backstory properly. While some backstory belongs in early chapters, other episodes might work best as flashbacks that amplify a pivotal moment. Instead of planting that wound on page seventeen, consider a flashback at the moment when that wound matters most. This can be particularly powerful if the flashback is essential to the conflict or understanding a character’s motivation during a specific scene.

 

Problem Three: The Stand-In

Sometimes backstory is a stand-in for character development. Interesting tidbits from the past are used to create intrigue but they tell us nothing about a character’s present experience. In her essay “How to Tell if Backstory is Sabotaging Your Novel,” Roz Morris writes about this problem using a character who was raised by theater folk as an example. “The writer hopes [the theater upbringing] will make her interesting. It does, to a point, but it’s only the start. The real value is in what it makes her. Does she crave security and a settled life as a result, or has it left her with itchy feet? Perhaps these twin urges are at odds inside her, sometimes pulling her one way, sometimes the other.”

Solution: Develop characters fully in the forward-moving narrative. Place them in interesting scenes where you can show who they really are. Give them quirky mannerisms and fresh dialogue only they can deliver. Let their reactions to other characters and your story’s conflicts define them.  If a colorful backstory exists, make sure it defines who they currently are.

 

Problem Four: Off-Page Issues 

Sometimes we’re stuck in backstory because it’s safe. We know what happened and how we feel about it.  Early chapters in my memoir introduce important events leading up to my brother’s suicide. Everything else happens after he’s gone. As I approached the chapters leading to that tragic moment, swells of grief washed over me. I realized that while I likely have some on-the-page backstory issues (dumping, anyone?), some of my problems are internal. 

While circling around backstory to avoid painful feelings is a common memoir problem, writers working on thinly-veiled novels are also at risk. This problem can even happen when the plot differs greatly from the writer’s life, but the feeling tone of the conflict rings true to the writer’s experience.  

Solution: Practice self-care and manage expectations about your progress. Allow yourself to take breaks, write at a slower pace, and affirm the power of the process. Give yourself permission to work on something else until the story feels less intense.

Once I realized my biggest backstory trap was off the page, I pushed back a deadline, wrote for shorter periods, and completed more meditations.  As I accepted this part of the writing life, revising became easier. Three weeks ago, my story began sharing its secrets through late-night wakeups and flashes of inspiration. Now that we’re on speaking terms, I can ask my characters what parts of my backstory are absolutely essential.

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